Monday 27 December 2010

The Alleged Conan Formula

More recently I decided to read Robert E. Howard, particularly his Solomon Kane and Conan stories.
I am not a fan of Conan, I’m afraid. At least for the first several stories that Howard wrote, I felt like they were all derivatives of each other. 

This is exactly why I've set up the Newcomer's Guide. This gentleman, Bruce Nielson, has claimed to have read the first thirteen Conan stories - presumably this means The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian - yet I can see much reason to doubt that statement.  If he has read them, I really thinks he needs to read them again.

Ah well.  Can't please everyone, even though I don't know how anyone could consider "The Phoenix on the Sword," "The Frost-Giant's Daughter," "The God in the Bowl" and "The Tower of the Elephant" remotely similar enough to be "derivative of each other. But that's not my problem.  My problem is that Mr Nielson has gone to the trouble to produce a "Conan formula" which apparently applies to the stories, based on his reading of the first thirteen.  The problem is, as I shall demonstrate, that this formula does nothing of the sort.

Sure, he's just a blogger on the internet.  But I'm just a blogger on the internet.  This is the kind of stuff the Newcomer's Guide seeks to challenge.  And challenge it is what I intend to do.

First of all, let's see which thirteen Conan stories Mr Nielson might be talking about:

"The Phoenix on the Sword"
"The Frost-Giant's Daughter"
"The God in the Bowl"
"The Tower of the Elephant"
"The Scarlet Citadel"
"Queen of the Black Coast"
"Black Colossus"
"Iron Shadows in the Moon"
"Xuthal of the Dusk"
"The Pool of the Black One"
"Rogues in the House"
"The Vale of Lost Women"
"The Devil in Iron"

It's unfortunate the volume ends on something of a low note, and in terms of mediocre-to-classic content, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian is probably the weakest of the three Del Rey collections (though this is merely by analysis of the stories themselves, not the actual collections). The first seven stories are more or less essential Conan. We get three tales that are widely considered to be largely mediocre before hitting the fantastic "Rogues in the House," then round out on two more mediocres. Eight to five isn't too bad, and those eight are some of the finest Conan stories of them all.

Anyway, let's go through Mr Nielson's Conan Standard Plot one stage at a time:

  • There is a woman

Presumably Mr Nielson completely forgot that of the thirteen stories, no less than five of them don't have a major female character at all. The Nielson Conan Standard Plot isn't off to a great start.

  • She is always white, though she might be fair or tan

Back on track, but it's fair to say that of the nine major female characters who do appear, they are indeed all white.  Really?  An author of pulp fiction writing to an audience in the era of Jim Crow and Yellow Peril?  Why are you surprised?

  • She is always the daughter of a king or high noble man
  • She has usually been captured by some evil civilized man that has taken her as his play thing. (Apparently peasant girls never get captured by designing men)

Apart from Natala, of course: she's nothing more than some poor slave girl with no noble heritage Conan picked up at a sacked Shemite city.  And of course, Natala wasn't captured by an evil civilized man either, at least over the course of the story.  Is Nielson seriously suggesting that peasant girls don't get captured and toyed with in the Hyborian Age?  Come now.

  • Most of the time her hair is blond

Well, that's not how I remember it.

Ho-ho, see what I did there?

Of the eight applicable stories, I've counted at least nine female characters, ten if you include Vateesa from "Black Colossus."  Would you like to guess how many of them are blond?  The answer is one.  ONE.  Natala is the only female character in the eight stories which even have female characters to have blond hair.  Of the remainder, all are brunette, save for Atali, whose hair colour is a mixture of blonde and red - and that is not unequivocably blond, as Nielson states.  So one out of ten.  Apparently, "most of the time" equates to "ten per cent" by Nielson's reckoning.

  • She never has a personality

Now here I'm just going to cry foul.  You're seriously trying to say Atali, Yasmela, Thalis and especially Belit don't have personalities?  Even if you're going to argue they're stereotypes, there's no way you could confuse Belit for Natala, or Olivia for Atali. After all, if they never have a personality, that means they're essentially interchangeable, right?  What balderdash.

  • She is scantily clad

I am scandalized - scandalized - that an author writing in the era of Fu Manchu and Doc Savage has made the female characters scantily clad.  Of course, Nielson forgets the very salient point that in those stories where the female is scantily clad, Conan himself is frequently as bereft of garments.  Natala, Sancha, Olivia, Livia - all have about the same amount of skin coverage as our hero.

  1. Conan shows up for one of the following reasons:
    • He’s trying to rob someone
    • He’s trying to assassinate someone so that he can take what is theirs
    • He just happens to be wandering along for no reason

How do any of these reasons apply to "The Phoenix on the Sword," "The Frost-Giant's Daughter," "Iron Shadows in the Moon," "Xuthal of the Dusk," The Pool of the Black One" and "The Devil in Iron," exactly?

  1. The woman meets Conan and can’t help but notice how massive and attractive he is.

Do you maybe think people notice how massive Conan is... because he's massive?  Hell, most of the male characters do the same. As for attractive, Yasmela sure doesn't immediately notice his attractiveness: she has half a mind to flee from him at the story's beginning. Same with Olivia, whose first experience of Conan is as a veritable avatar of primal, bloodthirsty vengeance.  Of course, the Cimmerian's charms grow on them, but still.

She then does one of the following:
  • She’s already with him at the beginning of the story for no reason

"No reason"?  Come off it, Nielson, Howard explains perfectly well why any of the women starting off with Conan are with him at the start of the story.  Natala is with Conan because he rescued her from a sacked Shemite city.  And... wait, that's the only story I can think of where Conan is already with the girl.  Huh.

  • Falls for him

Apart from Atali, of course, who was never interested in Conan for anything other than his smoking, bleeding heart.

  • Tries to use him to free herself but doesn’t really like him, though she admits to herself how handsome he is

Again, I don't think Atali admits this to herself, so much as she's using Conan.

  • Tags along with Conan because she needs a big strong man to protect her

Really?  A woman in a pre-industrial age where in most lands the gender is treated as a second-class citizen at best and property at worst, decides to be pragnatic and comes to the conclusion she needs a big strong man to protect her?  Oh, how unrealistic.

  • Conan and the woman then decide to explore some horrible place full of danger. Inevitably, there is some Lovecraftian horror that will attack them.

Only if you consider giant apes "Lovecraftian," like the Grey Ape in "Iron Shadows in the Moon" and the winged ape in "Queen of the Black Coast."  So yeah, not exactly inevitable.

  • Conan then protects the woman from this horror and will manage to save her. During this fight, the following will take place with only minor variations:

A shame Conan couldn't protect the love of his freaking life in "Queen of the Black Coast."

  • There will be large amounts of blood and gore.
  • Heads will fly or be smooshed

... And?  Violence in the age of sword and axe was generally not a particularly clean business.  What, do you expect the cuts to be clean and there not to be gallons of blood? That's unrealistic, not the idea that disembowelling someone results in anything other than fountains of viscera.

  • Conan will single handedly kill all human’s nearby except his woman. (This often involves killing some other attractive woman that he also wanted, but she was evil, so no go. “Evil” here always means “not letting Conan keep the other woman.”)

Both points are complete nonsense.  Does Conan single-handedly kill an entire tavern in "The Tower of the Elephant"?  Does he single-handedly defeat Tsotha-Lanti in their first encounter in "The Scarlet Citadel"?  Does Conan single-handedly kill the guardsmen who came to arrest him in "Rogues in the House"?  No, he does not.  Conan is incredibly strong and skilled on the battlefield, but he's hardly indestructible, and besides, sometimes another person gets to do the killing.

As for Conan killing the evil attractive woman: Out of the nine or ten female characters in the eight applicable stories, two can be considered to be evil, as well as one exceedingly minor character in "Rogues in the House" who betrays Conan.  Of the three, Conan kills none of them.  Not one.

  • He will receive no wounds.
  • Then Conan will fight off some Lovecraftian horror and almost die. (Conan is apparently human-proof but not Lovecraftian proof.)

For a brief space the assassins crowded him fiercely, raining blows blindly and hampered by their own numbers; then they gave back suddenly – two corpses on the floor gave mute evidence of the king’s fury, though Conan himself was bleeding from wounds on arm, neck and legs...
 - Conan at the beginning of a battle with twenty would-be assassins, "The Phoenix on the Sword"
"Best stop your caterwauling and aid us to bind the king’s wounds. He’s like to bleed to death."
- Conan after defeating said assassins (and one demon who didn't contribute much), "The Phoenix on the Sword"
"See first to the dagger-wound in my side," he bade the court physicians. "Rinaldo wrote me a deathly song there, and keen was the stylus."
- Conan on the damage a skinny drip of a poet did to him, "The Phoenix on the Sword"

Conan of Aquilonia, blood from unbandaged wounds caking his huge limbs, faced his captors.
- Conan after the Battle of Shamu's Plain, "The Scarlet Citadel"

"Fetch herbs and dress your master’s wounds! The rest of you bring aboard the plunder and cast off."
As Conan sat with his back against the poop-rail, while the old shaman attended to the cuts on his hands and limbs...
- Conan after the Battle on the Argo, "Queen of the Black Coast"

Reeling up, blood streaming down his face from under his dented helmet, Conan glared dizzily at the profusion of destruction which spread before him.
- Conan after his battle with Prince Kutamun, "Black Colossus"

He was powerfully built, naked but for a girdled loin-cloth, which was stained with blood and crusted with dried mire. His black mane was matted with mud and clotted blood; there were streaks of dried blood on his chest and limbs, dried blood on the long straight sword he gripped in his right hand...
- Conan's appearance in "Iron Shadows of the Moon"

Up on the cliff Olivia caught at the boulders for support. The scene swam dizzily before her eyes; all she could see was the Cimmerian lying limply on the sward, blood oozing from his head.
- Conan after Aratus' sling shot finds its mark, "Iron Shadows in the Moon"

On his clean-cut limbs were evidences of scarcely healed wounds.
- Conan after the rest of the army was slaughtered before the beginning of "Xuthal of the Dusk"

But whatever their faults, the men of Xuthal did not lack courage. They swarmed about him yelling and hacking, and through the arched doorways rushed others, awakened from their slumbers by the unwonted clamor.
Conan, bleeding from a cut on the temple, cleared a space for an instant with a devastating sweep of his dripping saber...
- Conan fighting the men of Xuthal, "Xuthal of the Dusk"

All of these quotes follow battles with humans. Not giant apes, not monster snakes, not Lovecraftian horrors - human beings. Human-proof my eye.

  1. Then one of the following will take place to end the story:
  •  If the woman was trying to use Conan, he’ll decide not to force her to keep their deal – you know what it is — because murderous thieving barbarians, unlike their civilized counter parts, stick to a code of ethics concerning women, if they want to.
  • The woman likes Conan and will insist on sealing the deal just as the story fades out.
  • The woman claims she doesn’t like Conan but he knows better and then it pretty much ends just like b but with her “pretending” to fight him off.

I'd love to know how Mr Nielson got any of those three endings from "The Phoenix on the Sword," "The Frost-Giant's Daughter," "The God in the Bowl," "The Tower of the Elephant," "The Scarlet Citadel," "Queen of the Black Coast," (by the way, that's the first six Conan stories), or "Rogues in the House."

Essentially, out of thirteen Conan stories, only six of them end in anything remotely like the above endings.  For crying out loud, Nielson.

You have now read all of the first 13 Conan stories.

Have we hell.

When somebody called Nielson out on it - though he only thought of three, and didn't seem interested in Conan anyway - Nielson responded:

First, you are right that I am over simplifying to both make a point and to be humorous. I didn’t really intend this as an English paper.
However, that over simplification (such as the God in the Bowl execption?) isn’t much of an over simplification. And I’m pretty sure I read the originals.

Really? Only half of the alleged "formula" actually applying to a collection of stories - and even when the stories do fit, they only apply to certain aspects of it - "isn't much of an over simplification"?

One of the pages I'm working on for the Newcomer's Guide is one that compares the Conan stories, and judges how "formulaic" they are.  Something along the lines of a checklist, with the following:

  • Conan kills the primary villain of the story, be it human, sorcerer, monster or god;
  • Conan slays an evil sorcerer, wizard, shaman, witch-finder or other magic user;
  • Conan destroys a monster, giant animal, eldritch abomination or similar beast;
  • Conan ends the story in a relationship with a female character;
  • Conan ends the story with the treasure, gold, jewels or other material rewards.

I've more or less completed it, and guess what?  None of the Conan stories have all five, and there are at least two which have none of the above.

I do think Nielson has indeed read the stories, in that he's dragged his eyes over the printed text of the pages, and some of the words clicked a few synapses in his brain matter.  But whether he's read them and comprehended them, I'm not so sure.  I certainly can't see where he got such silliness like "most of the female characters were blond," "Conan was human-proof," and whatnot.

But then, I've read some crazy misreadings of the stories in my time:

I think it has to do with the fact that the first Conan story I read was The People of the Black Circle, which concludes with a woman firmly turning Conan down, and him declaring that he will rally the tribes in the hills, whip them into an army, invade and pillage her kingdom, slaughtering any who stand before them, and then he will find her in the burning ruins of her palace and rape her.
I wish I was kidding. That is literally what he tells her. That freaked me out enough to turn me off the character semi-permanently. Prior to that it had been possible to sympathise with Conan, though he was a bit savage and bloodthirsty, but carnage and rape crosses the line. 

In what possible reading of "The People of the Black Circle" could you get that out of this?

"I still owe you my ransom," she said, her dark eyes glowing as they swept over him. "Ten thousand pieces of gold I will pay you-"
He made a savage, impatient gesture, shook the blood from his knife and thrust it back in its scabbard, wiping his hands on his mail.
"I will collect your ransom in my own way, at my own time," he said. "I will collect it in your palace at Ayodhya, and I will come with fifty thousand men to see that the scales are fair."
She laughed, gathering her reins into her hands. "And I will meet you on the shores of the Jhumda with a hundred thousand!"
His eyes shone with fierce appreciation and admiration, and stepping back, he lifted his hand with a gesture that was like the assumption of kingship, indicating that her road was clear before her. - The final paragraphs of "The People of the Black Circle"

Seriously, how does read the above, and think Conan is literally saying "I will muster an army, invade and pillage your kingdom, slaughtering any who stand before us, and then I will find you in the burning ruins of your palace and rape you"!?!  Is there any possible way one could get that?  At all?  Because the only way I could is if I was intentionally misreading the text.

So it's entirely possible for someone to misread a Conan story, but often, it's such an extreme misreading that I simply can't fathom how one could come to that conclusion.  Perhaps Mr Nielson really does think the Conan stories are more or less the same.  It's just incredibly strange and sort of anathema to me.

Sure, I could understand how certain Conan stories might be derivative of each other - The Hour of the Dragon being partly derivative of "The Scarlet Citadel," "Black Colossus" and "The Devil in Iron," as well as the "mediocre Conans" being highly formulaic.  But to say that all the Conan stories, or even the first thirteen, are "more or less the same" is just so beyond my comprehension I can merely throw my hands in the air in resignation.

Or, to put it another way...


  1. Nicely said. Mostly, when people accuse a genre author of being formulaic, it is because they can see only the tropes that define the genre; "High Noon is formulaic because there's this sheriff and bad guys with guns etc..."

  2. There is a passage in Theodore Roosevelt's Autobiography, discussing Commodore Dewey prior to the Battle of Manila Bay which I will now paraphrase " I knew that in the event of war Al Harron could be slipped like a wolf-hound from a leash; I was sure that if he were given half a chance he would strike instantly and with telling effect"

  3. Has someone pointed out to Mr. Nielson that Robert E. Howard didn't actually write the scripts for the first thirteen issues of Savage Sword of Conan? Because that could be causing a lot of the confusion.

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  5. I am furious. Very furious. "People of the black circle" is, by far, my favorite Conan tale. I really CANT understand how anyone can misread that beautiful paragraph and transform it into crap...

  6. OK the guy is a Mormon. That explains almost everything :P

  7. Kike, that is quite unfair. Sandy Petersen is also Mormon. No one claims Call of Cthulhu, the game he authored, lacks appropriate touch.

    OP/Taranaich, I'm surprised more pages like this do not exist: